Here’s Exactly What Medical Experts Mean by 'Shortness of Breath'

Public health institutions, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, list “shortness of breath” as one of the primary symptoms of the coronavirus COVID-19.

As with another symptom of COVID-19, dry cough, shortness of breath is a phrase that may create some questions for you.

What, exactly, is “shortness of breath?” When might you experience it? What does shortness of breath feel like? And what should you do if you think that you have shortness of breath, as the symptom relates to the coronavirus?

To help answer your (very good) questions, we turned to the expertise of Jason Fritz, M.D., associate professor of Pulmonary Medicine at Penn Medicine and co-director of the Dyspnea Program at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.

Dr. Fritz is a specialist in “dyspnea,” the medical term for shortness of breath.

What, exactly, does “shortness of breath” mean? What does it feel like?

Jelena Danilovic

“Shortness of breath can mean different things to different people,” says Dr. Fritz. “But generally it is described as uncomfortable or unpleasant breathing, a sense of not being able to get enough air, and/or becoming ‘winded’ with a certain amount of activity requiring a period of rest to catch one’s breath.”

So that’s what it would feel if you were experiencing shortness of breath. But what would it look like if someone else was suffering from the symptom?

“Someone with shortness of breath may appear to be breathing uncomfortably or more rapidly than normal,” Dr. Fritz says.

Is there a way I can check for shortness of breath?

John Fedele

There is no specific test for shortness of breath, says Dr. Fritz.

However, in some cases, Dr. Fritz says, “a dusky or bluish appearance to the lips or fingertips could indicate abnormally low blood oxygen levels, and this should prompt immediate medical evaluation.”

Is the symptom “shortness of breath” something that occurs at a certain frequently and/or over a certain period of time?

That depends.

“Chronic lung or heart conditions can cause shortness of breath on a chronic basis,” Dr. Fritz says.

If you have these conditions, you can likely predict when you’ll feel shortness of breath, such as walking up two flights of stairs or crossing two city blocks, he says.

Paul Bradbury

Although, in pulmonary disorders such asthma or COPD, shortness of breath can appear more abruptly, Dr. Fritz says, triggered by something noxious in the environment or an infection.

“Acute pulmonary infections, such as with viruses or bacteria, usually cause shortness of breath that onsets fairly rapidly (often over the course of a few days) and is typically associated with a new cough,” says Dr. Fritz.

What could shortness of breath be a symptom of?

Well, many things.

“Shortness of breath is a symptom common to nearly all forms of chronic heart and lung disease, as well as anemia (low blood count), de-conditioning, and certain neuromuscular problems,” Dr. Katz says. “Any kind of respiratory infection can also cause shortness of breath.”

And, to that point…

If someone has shortness of breath, should they get tested for COVID-19?

“Because many different things can cause shortness of breath, that symptom by itself should not necessarily prompt testing for COVID-19,” Dr. Fritz says.

“However, if there is new shortness of breath that occurs in combination with features of a respiratory infection, like fevers, cough, or sputum production, then testing for COVID-19 or other respiratory infections may be warranted, particularly if the person suspects to have been exposed to a known case of COVID-19,” he says.

Dr. Fritz says that it’s important to remember that there are many other common infections that can cause the same pattern of symptoms as COVID-19. Infections such as influenza, other viruses, or bacterial pneumonia.

“These other conditions may have different treatments. A chest X-ray can sometimes be helpful to your provider in diagnosing the problem, in combination with other testing,” says Dr. Fritz.

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